Welcome to the first annual “Emily's Ten – Er, Twelve – Favorite Books She Read Last Year.” I freely admit this list is entirely subjective: there's no set criteria, I make no claim to have truly found the “best” books of the year. Most of these books weren't actually published in 2010, that just happens to be when I read them. Some will definitely show up in later columns; some aren't even non-fiction. To receive the illustrious honor of appearing on this list, the books simply had to be personally meaningful to me, make me think, laugh, cry, stay up past my bedtime, view the world differently, or all of the above. Without further ado, here are the first six (in no particular order)...
Art Up Close: From Ancient to Modern
by Claire d'Harcourt
This book is a great introduction for children (and adults!) to a wide variety of artistic styles across more than 3000 years of human history. Each page features a different painting or other piece of art and invites the reader to look for a dozen or so elements within it – a dog, a blue swirl, a sandaled foot, a criss-cross pattern. Some of the details are obvious and easy to find while others are fairly difficult making it interesting for all ages. A wonderful range of pieces is included: an Egyptian papyrus circa 1300 BC, an Aztec manuscript from the early 16th century, a gorgeous Japanese wood block print from the 1800s, Renoir, Picasso, and Pollock, just to name a few. The back of the book has informative paragraphs on each piece, its artist and historical context, as well as lift-the-flap answers for all the details you're supposed to find. You'll learn without even realizing it!
Strike Group Reagan
by Harold Hutchison
Strike Group Reagan is, perhaps strangely, one of the more personal ones on this list. The author was told by his high school journalism teacher that he wouldn't amount to anything – he'd be lucky to even graduate – and that he'd certainly never be a published author. He has overcome obstacles and disabilities and challenges his entire life with a resilience and perseverance that is inspiring. He's also my big brother and I'm inordinately proud of him.
Civil war breaks out in Tunisia and the USS Ronald Reagan, stationed in the Mediterranean, is tasked to evacuate a group of American archeology students who have been excavating on site. A pair of sisters form the heart of the story; one is a fighter pilot on the USS Ronald Reagan, and the other is a student trapped in Tunisia. Strike Group Reagan is a military action novel in the style of Tom Clancy, complete with plenty of the attendant jargon and acronyms from several countries and cultures. Mr. Hutchison describes the various weapons, munitions, equipment, aircraft, ships, and other vehicles with painstaking accuracy, but the plot doesn't get lost in all that detail. He balances the perspectives well, juggling the storylines to keep the action moving without leaving us wondering about any of the characters too long. It's a page-turning thriller!
Lunch Walks Among Us (The Franny K. Stein series)
by Jim Benton
This title is the first in a series, geared toward seven- to nine-year-olds, that is my favorite discovery of the year! The protagonist, Franny K. Stein, is a little different from many of the girls around her. No pretty Barbie dolls, pink frilly things and PB&J sandwiches on fluffy white bread will do for Franny! She's a "mad" scientist who invents brilliant devices, creates terrifying monsters and does explosive science experiments (which occasionally go horribly wrong, of course). Her loving parents are always present and supportive, if a bit mystified by her preferred activities.
Each book in the series takes us on an adventure with Franny attempting to decipher the world around her that simply doesn't see things the way she does – and what kid (or adult!) can't relate to that! She muddles through Valentine's Day, builds a time machine, shrinks herself and explores her dog's – excuse me – her lab assistant's insides, and ventures into politics. She reveals herself to be a creative, intelligent problem-solver and learns valuable lessons about honesty and integrity, being comfortable in her own skin, and appreciating differences. The clever illustrations are eye-catching and the witty plays on words are giggle-inducing, but the best part is that Mr. Benton never talks down to his readers – I can't think of another book for this age group that uses "philatelist" with quite as much panache.
by Atul Gawande
Sometimes the simplest tools provide the most effective solutions. Using examples across several professional fields (including construction, aviation, investment funds, restaurants, and of course, medicine), Dr. Gawande illustrates again and again the power of the humble, unassuming checklist to serve as a defense against complacency and arrogance. They help insure quality and consistency and yes, save lives. As an unrepentant list user myself, I appreciate the scientific backing of my natural inclinations.
Dr. Gawande includes some specifics about using checklists optimally: keep them short, include items that are often skipped or missed rather than every single step, make them easy to read. Most interesting to me, however, was his focus on using checklists to create a sense of teamwork and collegiality. The checklists are themselves useful, but they are a means to an end: aiding appropriate communication to ensure the best result.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
by Richard L. Bushman
It is deeply reassuring to me that the Lord uses imperfect people to accomplish His work.Rough Stone Rolling offers a fascinating, well-rounded view of Joseph Smith's origins, influences, and accomplishments. Most enlightening for me was the depth and breadth of context it provides regarding the cultural, economic, religious and
Dr. Bushman acknowledges his inherent bias as a faithful, practicing Mormon, but also his desire as a professional historian to address this subject as objectively as he would others. I think he succeeds admirably. Dr. Bushman takes various sources, extracts the core nuggets of fact, compares and contrasts them, considers the motives and perspectives involved and develops a readable narrative that portrays the Prophet Joseph as a real person. Of course, this includes discussion of some personality quirks and even flaws as well as pointing out his admirable qualities. For me, that honesty and balance humanized Joseph in a very real way. It's difficult to relate to the simplified, almost cardboard-cutout version which is sometimes all we see. Without white-washing or omitting troublesome aspects (which would damage his credibility as a historian), Dr. Bushman avoids the tabloid sensationalism of some other biographies by less sympathetic authors who seem to always assume the worst. The Joseph of Rough Stone Rolling is an imperfect individual who was sometimes impulsive and had a quick temper, especially towards those who showed any hint of disloyalty or contradiction, but was also warm, friendly and generous to a fault, deeply committed to his faith and the revelations he received.